David Benioff on The Kite Runner: The RT Interview
One of Hollywood's hottest screenwriters takes a break from Wolverine to talk with RT.David Benioff's intriguing screenwriting debut (adapting his novel 25th Hour, eventually directed by Spike Lee in 2002), the New York-raised writer has been bouncing back and forth in Hollywood between studio-event blockbusters (Troy, the upcoming X-Men Origins: Wolverine) and character-driven dramas (Stay). His latest project fits mostly in the former category. It's an adaptation of The Kite Runner (directed by Stay's Marc Forster), a multi-generational story of Afghanistan, class conflict, and atonement.
In our final Kite Runner interview -- click
read our interview with lead actor Khalid Abdalla, and
our author Khaled Hosseini interview -- we speak with Benioff in San Francisco
about the challenges of adapting a 400-page book, excessively long movies, and
Amanda Peet's pregnancy affected his travel schedule.
How did you take on the task of taking a book that's about 400 pages and spans over 30 years and adapting it into a screenplay that would work?
David Benioff: Ruthlessly. I don't like extremely long movies. I tend to get a bit impatient. There are definitely exceptions, like Lawrence of Arabia, but for the most part I feel that movies should usually be shorter and not longer. I went into it knowing I wanted the movie to be about two hours. The funny thing is that people at the studio talk about it like it's a little movie with kids speaking Dari, but it's not a little movie. I understand it's not going to be Spider-Man 3. It's not going to be this massive blockbuster. But it is an epic.
The real trick was trying to figure out what to cut. The first time I read the book, I read it like anyone else and fell in love with it. The second time reading it was after I got the job and was trying to figure out what's the skeleton that will hold this movie together, because I had to cut away so much of the fat and the muscle and I needed to find the bones that keep the story standing. So there were a lot of things that were cut, a lot of things I loved from the book.
For instance, the whole sequence with Hassan's harelip where Baba brings in a plastic surgeon from India to repair it; that was one of my favorite sequences in the book and it was in the early drafts of the script, but we knew ultimately that things would have to be cut. Eventually, I had to choose to cut things that wouldn't hurt the story or our knowledge of the characters.
Luckily I was working with a director and an editor who both share my impatience for things that become too long and lugubrious and we finally got the script to where it needed to be.
Part of it was also knowing that the book is always going to be there. The book is on my shelf and those scenes will always be in there. It's not like I'm ripping pages out of the book. I knew the film had to stand on its own and work for people who have never read the book. It's definitely a frightening one to take on because so many people love it so much, but you can't write in fear.
How closely did you work with Khaled Hosseini?
DB: He was wonderful. I've been lucky, but I have friends who have adapted books and often the relationship between the screenwriter and the novelist can be tense. I've heard some horror stories. In this case, Khaled was very supportive from the beginning. Not only of what we were trying to do but also of understanding that the film was going to be different from the book in some respects. I think he had faith. He knew we all loved the book and wanted to tell the story properly. Once he met us and knew how passionate we were about it, I think he probably relaxed a bit. Going forward, when I was actually working on the script, he was a great resource. I'm not Muslim and I didn't grow up in Afghanistan, so I had many questions about different aspects of the story. I could always call or email Khaled and get a detailed response back within an hour.
The best part for me, the nicest thing I heard throughout the whole process was when we were recording the DVD audio commentary at Skywalker Ranch. It was really cool just to be at Skywalker Ranch. But at one point, Marc Forster said, "That's a really nice line, was that in the book?" Then Khaled said that at this point, he couldn't remember who had written it. To hear that from the author was incredible.
I was relieved to see that the film wasn't completely in English. Was it always the intent to have the film be primarily in Dari?
DB: It was always clear that it was the only way to do it properly, but I never thought it would happen, because it was a huge money-losing proposition. Movies that are subtitled don't usually do as well in American theatres. Honestly, the hero in the whole situation was Marc Forster, who said that he wouldn't do it unless it was in Dari.